If you’re an average American, you have a car. You drive it an average of 15,000 miles every year, and it gets an average of 25 miles per gallon. That means, in an average year, you go through about 600 gallons of fuel.

Ten years ago, that 600 gallons of fuel could be bought for an average of $1.71 a gallon, meaning it cost you an average of $1,026 a year to fuel your car. Oh, and another average (a median, actually) from 10 years ago, was $33,850 -- that’s the average (median) wage per-person in 1997.

After you bought all your gas, you still had $32,824 for the rest of your bills (all dollar figures are adjusted to 2008 values, by the way).

Today, that same 600 gallons of fuel costs not $1,026 but $1,980 (at $3.30 a gallon), nearly double. But Indiana’s median wage hasn’t budged, it’s still about $32,000 a year. Now, instead of having $33K left over, after paying the gas bill you’ve only got $30K.

Or three grand less to play with than you had a decade ago. On average.

Of course, if you’re not average, it could be better. Or it could be worse. In 1997, the minimum wage was $6.92 an hour (again, 2008 dollars). An average work year is 2000 hours, so the minimum-wage earner in 1997 made about $14K a year. Minus fuel costs, $1K, and they were left with $13K to pay the rent, buy food, etc.

Today’s minimum wage is $5.85, actually less than the inflation-adjusted minimum wage of 1997. That’s under $12K a year. Minus fuel costs, again, and now you’re left only with $10K for rent, food, etc.

Double whammy

That’s the double-whammy. Stagnant (for the average wage earner) or declining (for those at the bottom of the scale) wages. Bring on fuel costs that have doubled. The net effect? Those on the bottom of our wage scales, after adjusting for inflation and fuel prices, are taking home $3,000 less than they were a decade ago -- a 25 percent drop in effective income.

But what are you going to do? It’s not really possible to get around in America’s communities, that is outside the largest cities, without a car. And Bloomington is no exception to that rule, anymore.

And it’s not like things are going to get any better, it’s not like the trend is going to reverse. Yesterday, oil closed at $106 a barrel, up from “only” $65 or so a year ago. As worldwide oil production continues to decline, and an ever-growing worldwide human population continues to increase, the situation will only get worse.

Much worse.

The end of the tunnel

But not hopeless. The great thing about being inefficient is that you can always become more efficient, and, if America is one thing, it’s inefficient.

The quality of life in Western Europe and Japan is directly comparable to the US’. A little better in some ways, a little worse in others. But there’s one thing about Western Europe and Japan that’s different than us, and that’s fuel consumption – on average the US uses twice as much fuel, per person, per year, as does any other advanced nation.

A large reason for that is the fact that, up to now at least, fuel usage, particularly motor fuels, is heavily subsidized by the government. While Americans are paying (and complaining about paying) $3-4 a gallon for gasoline, Europeans are paying twice that much, while complaining half as much.


It’s society, stupid

One basic reason is that Japan and Western Europe have advanced social safety nets, including universal healthcare and disability. They also have minimum wage levels twice as high as ours, or higher.

But a more egalitarian society isn’t all. As I said, they use half the amount of oil, per-capita, that we do. And they tolerate fuel costs twice as high as ours.

We need to look deeper to find the answer. Where the US has fuel-intensive highways, Europe and Japan have bullet trains (France, in fact, can claim that its trains are nuclear-powered, since they’re powered by electricity and France generates its electrical power with nuclear generators).

Where the United States has low-density suburban sprawl, where Christopher Leinberger in the Atlantic said we’d find the next slums, Europe and Japan have high-density villages, towns and cities.

The United States’ energy dependence is getting it into a lot of trouble. The middle and lower classes in particular will soon find themselves overwhelmed by fuel costs, if they’re not already. That, in turn, will lead to economic collapse as every dollar that could be spent in a local shop, restaurant or service provider now increasingly has to go overseas to beg oil from people who hate us.

If the economy isn’t collapsing already.

Towards a ‘Manhattan Project’ of community reform

In a best-case scenario, those communities that can remake themselves into a less energy-dependent form will be those communities that thrive in the future. The worst-case scenario, those communities that remake themselves will be the ones that don’t suffer total collapse.

Remaking starts, and just about ends, with infrastructure. It means transforming our built environment into one no longer utterly dependent on cars, so as to free people from the cost of those cars.

It means moving people around more intelligently. It means a light rail line from Bloomington to Ellettsville. It means a real trolley, again riding on rails, to shuffle people around downtown.

It means turning the parking lots into buildings, for shopping, working, and sleeping.

It means a future on our terms, not chaos.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .